Dame Julie Andrews (b. 1935) is famous for her portrayal of Maria von Trapp in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical film The Sound of Music (1965). The musical is based on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, written by the real Maria von Trapp in 1945. Maria Augusta von Trapp was the stepmother of the Trapp Family Singers, who inspired the singing children in the famous show.
Maria was born on 26th January 1905 while her parents, Augusta and Karl Kutschera, were travelling on a train from the Austrian Tyrol to Vienna. Sadly, Augusta died from pneumonia when Maria was only two-years-old, and the young child was sent to live with her father’s cousin. She rarely saw her father because he spent much of his time travelling. After Karl died when Maria was nine, her foster mother’s son became her legal guardian.
Uncle Franz, Maria’s guardian, unknowingly suffered from mental illness and treated Maria poorly. He often punished her for things she did not do, which affected how Maria behaved at school. She stopped trying to be good because she figured she would only get in trouble anyway. Maria finally escaped from Uncle Franz by running away at the age of 15 to stay with a friend. She had plans to become a tutor, but no one would hire her because she looked too young. Eventually, she got a job umpiring tennis, a game she had never played.
Eventually, Maria earned a scholarship to study at the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna. She graduated in 1923 at the age of 18. The following year, Maria became a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg. Maria intended to become a nun; meanwhile, she worked in the Abbey school.
Those familiar with the storyline of The Sound of Music know Maria did not become a nun. Instead, in 1926, the Abbey sent her to teach one of the seven children of a widowed naval commander. Georg von Trapp (1880-1947) had recently lost his wife, Agathe, to scarlet fever. One of his daughters, Maria Franziska (1914-2014), also caught the illness, leaving her too weak to walk to school. In the musical, Maria was employed to teach all the children. In reality, Von Trapp only needed her to teach Maria Franziska.
After teaching Maria Franziska, Von Trapp decided to have all his children homeschooled. Maria was responsible for the education of all seven children: Rupert (1911-92), Agathe (1913-2010), Maria Franziska, Werner (1915-2010), Hedwig (1917-1972), Johanna (1919-1994) and Martina (1921-1951). In the musical, They were renamed Friedrich, Liesl, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta and Gretl respectively. The producers also made Liesl the eldest rather than Friedrich.
Georg von Trapp was an Austro-Hungarian naval officer. He served as a submarine commander during the First World War, earning him several medals. Von Trapp inherited the title Ritter from his father, which is the rough equivalent of a Baronet in English nobility. As a father, Georg was not the detached, cold-blooded man who disapproved of music, as portrayed in The Sound of Music. His children described him as a gentle, warmhearted parent; it was Maria who had a temper and would erupt in angry outbursts.
Maria loved the seven children in her charge, which did not go unnoticed by Von Trapp, who asked Maria to marry him. Frightened, Maria fled back to Nonnberg Abbey to seek advice from the mother abbess. Maria did not love Georg and wanted to become a nun, but the mother abbess persuaded her that it was God’s will that she marry. Reluctantly, Maria returned to the family and married Von Trapp on 26th November 1927.
“I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way, I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” – Maria von Trapp in her biography (1953)
The musical implies that the Von Trapp family fled Austria shortly after the wedding, but this was not the case. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Maria gave birth to three children, Rosemarie (b. 1929-2022), Eleonore (1931-2021) and Johannes (b. 1939), although the family had emigrated to the United States before Johannes’ birth.
In 1935, the Von Trapp family were still feeling the impact of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and faced financial ruin. To survive, Georg von Trapp discharged most of his servants and rented out rooms in the house. One boarder was the Roman Catholic priest Father Franz Wasner (1905-92), who discovered the family enjoyed singing. Wasner encouraged them to sing together to entertain guests, thus starting their career as the Trapp Family Singers. In The Sound of Music, Wasner was replaced by the fictional Max Detweiler.
In August 1936, the German soprano Lotte Lehmann rented a nearby villa in Salzburg. Overhearing the Von Trapp children practising their singing, she told Georg and Maria they had “gold in their throats” and should perform at the Salzburg Festival. Initially, Georg insisted he did not want his family performing in public, but Lehmann soon persuaded him to participate.
Shortly after their performance, the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg (1897-1977) heard the family singing on the radio and invited them to perform in Vienna. Following this, they became a touring act, singing in locations all over Austria. Unfortunately, this became difficult after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938.
Whilst the children were not targeted directly, they received second-hand hostility when their Jewish school friends were attacked. The Nazis encouraged all children to report on their parents if they said anything against the Nazi party or Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Maria and Georg feared saying something out of turn, particularly because they did not agree with the Nazi regime and refused to fly the Nazi flag in their windows.
When performing in Munich in the summer of 1938, the Von Trapps came face to face with Hitler. Soon after, Georg was draughted into the German Navy, and the family decided to escape by travelling to Italy. Georg was born in Zadar, which became part of Italy in 1920, making him an Italian citizen. In the musical, the storyline claims the family climbed over the mountains into Switzerland. Not only is this impossible from Salzburg, which borders Germany, the family actually went by train.
From Italy, the Von Trapps travelled to England from where they sailed to the United States. By the time they reached American soil, Heinrich Himmler (1900-45), the leader of the Schutzstaffel (SS), had taken over their abandoned home as his headquarters.
The Von Trapps began singing in public as soon as they were settled in the United States. After a performance at the Town Hall in New York City on 10th December 1938, The New York Times wrote, “There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.”
Frederick Christian Schang (1893-1990), an American talent agent, officially established the family as the Trapp Family Singers and Americanised their repertoire. With all ten children singing, the group were ready to start performing all over the world once World War Two ended. They also founded the Trapp Family Austrian Relief fund, which provided food and clothing to help Austrian people who had lost everything in the war. At their concerts, Georg pleaded, “The country that gave to the world Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, and Silent Night will perish if we do not help them. Everybody knows about the situation the greater European countries are in. But few people can imagine what is happening in Austria, whose citizens are about to lose courage and hope.”
When not performing, the family ran a music camp at their home in Stowe, Vermont. All members of the family became US citizens during the 1940s, except for Georg, who passed away from lung cancer in 1947.
The Trapp Family Singers continued performing together until 1953 when they agreed to go their separate ways. Maria and two of the children became missionaries in Papua New Guinea, although Maria returned to Vermont in 1965.
For the rest of her life, Maria managed the Trapp Family Lodge, which she expanded into a 27-room ski lodge. Sadly, the building was destroyed by fire in 1980, resulting in the death of one guest. In 1983, Maria opened a larger Austrian-style lodge, which contained 97 bedrooms. It is still open to the public today and is owned by Sam von Trapp, Maria’s grandson.
On 28th March 1987, Maria von Trapp passed away from heart failure three days after undergoing an operation. She is buried in the grounds of the Trapp Family Lodge, alongside her husband. Maria’s memory lives on through her autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was adapted into The Sound of Music during the 1950s. Maria and her daughter, Rosemarie, made a cameo appearance in the 1965 film version, along with Barbara, the daughter of Werner. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot them walking past an archway during the song I Have Confidence.
Maria did not mind the slight changes to the storyline in The Sound of Music, but she did not approve of the portrayal of her husband. The children all had mixed reactions and could not recognise their father in the stage and film version. Johannes von Trapp complained, “The Sound of Music simplifies everything. I think perhaps reality is at the same time less glamorous but more interesting than the myth.”
In 1973, Maria appeared on The Julie Andrews Hour, where she sang Rodger and Hammerstein’s Edelweiss with Julie Andrews. It was not a song the family sang as the Trapp Family Singers, but it will forever be associated with the family and Austria due to the musical.
During her lifetime, Maria von Trapp won many awards, beginning with the Benemerenti Medal in recognition of the benefits of the Trapp Family Austrian Relief for needy Austrians in 1949. The medal was awarded by Pope Pius XII, who later made Maria a Dame of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in 1952. At the end of the 1950s, Maria received the Decoration of Honour in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria, and was given the Siena Medal in 1962 for being “an outstanding woman”, recognising her “endurance and great accomplishment.”
When the Trapp Family Singers went their separate ways, the eldest, Rupert, married and kept out of the limelight. Hedwig moved to Hawaii to teach singing, handicrafts and cooking. Agathe chose to start a kindergarten with her friend Mary Louise Kane, plus worked on paintings and illustrations for cookbooks of family recipes. One of her paintings hangs in the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Johanna also enjoyed painting. She married Ernst Florian Winter (1923-2014), the first director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna after World War II.
Maria Franziska and Rosemarie went to Papua New Guinea to become missionaries, whilst the remaining sisters, Martina and Eleonore, focused on starting their own families. Sadly, Martina gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1951 and died from complications soon after. Werner left his singing days behind to become a dairy farmer, leaving Johannes to take over the family lodge following his mother’s death.
Whilst they no longer sang publically, many of the Von Trapps were heard singing in their houses, often while completing chores. They passed their love of music to their children and grandchildren, and several of the latter formed The von Trapps, a small singing group that toured the United States between 2001 and 2016. The group, comprised of Sofia, Melanie, Amanda, and August, started their singing career by performing in a stage version of The Sound of Music in 1997. As a group, they released five studio albums and won the Special Award for Outstanding Young Family Singing Group at the 27th annual Young Artist Awards in 2006.
The Von Trapp family will always be remembered through the musical, The Sound of Music, particularly the film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The film won five Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and continues to rate in the top 100 of the American Film Institute’s musicals and movies. Whilst the musical will remain a firm favourite for many years to come, it is important to remember the real family who experienced the annexation of Austria and left their homeland in search of safety abroad.